Carolyn Nichol was born with the curious mind of an engineer. As a child, she enjoyed taking things apart, and even disassembled her grandfather’s odd clock, which ran counterclockwise, just to see how it worked.
In middle school, she won the science fair by making a solar oven for baking cookies. In high school in North Carolina, she was the only girl in her physics class and was constantly picked on by the boys because she was an outstanding student.
Nichol went on to receive her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in chemical engineering. She now is director of Rice’s Office of STEM Engagement (R-STEM). The three main goals of R-STEM are to provide resources to teachers and
underserved students, to provide a platform for Rice faculty to do their outreach and disseminate their research results, and to help close the disparity gap in public education.
The office manages more than 15 outreach programs, ranging from two-week intense courses to larger and longer programs. All the programs, however, are designed to engage students and teachers in experiential learning. “Whether they are elementary students, graduate students or teachers,” Nichol said, “we provide them with resources so that they can go out and understand the world in a better way.”
About 200 middle and high school students go through the summer programs at Rice each year, and about 100 middle school teachers attend the professional development courses offered by R-STEM. According to the Texas Education Agency, a middle school teacher instructs about 125 students a year, so the impact that R-STEM is having on students is in the tens of thousands, Nichol asserted.
One group that Nichol especially wants to reach is women. “One of my passions is to get more women into the fields of science and engineering,” she said. “In high school, I was the only girl in physics; in college I was the only woman in chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, and I was one of three women in my Ph.D. program at the University of Texas. So I really want girls to go into science and do well.”
To that end, she manages a course called Design, Connect, Create: Physics for Young Women. The two-week, free program caters to high school girls who have completed algebra I and plan to take physics in the fall. Immersive and hands on, the summer camp offers an array of scientific topics to explore such as static electricity, forces and motion. The students also get to listen to guest speakers — women who have succeeded in their engineering careers.
“To see women conquering the world of STEM was very encouraging to all of the girls,” said Raidah Ahmed ’21, a Rice student who worked as a teaching assistant in the program. “The mission of this program is to encourage these girls to not shy away from the subject and encourage them to pursue STEM regardless of the social perception that STEM is meant for men.”
Another issue that Nichol would like to solve is the educational disparity among students in public school education. “It’s wrong whenever so many kids have little access to high quality education and enrichment,” Nichol said. “But I think we can help them.”
R-STEM has created a program, the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics Fabrication Academy (STEMFab), to help Spanish-speaking students learn about careers in science and technology. The program is free and uses Spanish and English to communicate to students the opportunities available in STEM careers. HISD, a sponsor of the program, selects the students from HISD high schools, including Scarborough, Furr, Milby and Austin. Students learn a basic understanding of computer programming and electrical engineering through rapid prototyping and circuitry. By the end of the two-week camp, students know how to operate a 3D printer and enjoy making objects, especially a printed owl with blinking eyes.
“The STEMFab program gives students the opportunity to use their natural artistic and creative abilities while familiarizing themselves with current technology,” said Isaias Cerda, assistant director for STEM and a lead organizer of the program.
Students aren’t the only ones benefitting from R-STEM. Teachers are also brushing up on their science and teaching methods thanks to ConocoPhillips’ Applied Mathematics Program (AMP!). “This is a unique program because we pair math and science teachers for a professional development course,” Nichol said.
About 80 teachers come together for five days in the summer and eight days during the academic year to study subjects that are seemingly unrelated, such as algebra and biology, and find out how they can work together to solve scientific problems. For example, in one lesson, teachers explored how different cancer treatments impact the growth rate of tumors. Nichol helped launch the program through a generous donation from ConocoPhillips, which also provides staff members as guest speakers to talk about how they use mathematics in their jobs.
“The staff, the energy, overall this was the best professional development that I have been to because it was so hands on,” said Murissa Mayes, an eighth grade teacher at Key Middle School. “I feel confident in implementing what I learned from this experience in my classroom.”
Another teacher, Kaylyn Court, a seventh grade math teacher at Mayde Creek Junior High, said the program “stretched and forced” her to become a better teacher. “With great materials and resources, AMP! allows teachers to really explore and be submersed in the inquiry lesson design and how it can be implemented in the classroom.”
The educational need in Houston is great, Nichol said, but Rice is doing its part to help solve the problem. “It’s a lot of hard work to raise money to run these programs, but when they are in session and you can see the good that we are doing, I just completely forget how hard it is to write all those grants for the programs. It is so rewarding.”